Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest


Oscar Wilde's dramatic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest was his last great achievement before his trial and imprisonment in 1895. In this farcical comedy of romance and mistaken identity, earnest characters vie with characters named Ernest for love and fortune. The affairs of Jack and Algernon, Gwendolen and Cecily, become so hopelessly entangled that only the magnificently Johnsonian Lady Bracknell, with the aid of the inimitable Miss Prism (and her handbag), can finally assign names, titles, and brides to the appropriate suitors. The wittiest of Wilde's comedies, the pure farce of The Importance of Being Earnest brilliantly fulfills Wilde's aesthetic creed: "We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things with sincere and studied trivialty."


Oscar Wilde first published a book in 1881 and after more than a hundred years literary opinion has converged in the judgment that Wilde, as Borges asserts, was almost always right. This Tightness, which transcends wit, is now seen as central to the importance of being Oscar. Daily my mail brings me bad poetry, printed and unprinted, and daily I murmur to myself Wilde’s apothegm: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” Arthur Symons, like Wilde a disciple of Walter Pater, reviewed the Paterian Intentions of Wilde with this exquisite summary: “He is conscious of the charm of graceful echoes, and is always original in his quotations.” Symons understood that Wilde, even as playwright and as storyteller, was essentially a critic, just as Pater’s fictions were primarily criticism.

Wilde began as a poet, and alas was and always remained quite a bad poet. An admirer of The Ballad of Reading Gaol should read the poem side by side with The Ancient Mariner, in order to see precisely its crippling failure to experience an anxiety of influence. Of course, Ruskin and Pater also began as poets, but then wisely gave it up almost immediately, unlike Matthew Arnold who waited a little too long. It is deeply unfortunate that the young Wilde gave the world this poem about Mazzini:

He is not dead, the immemorial Fates
Forbid it, and the closing shears refrain,
Lift up your heads, ye everlasting gates!
Ye argent clarions sound a loftier strain!
For the vile thing he hated lurks within
Its sombre house, alone with God and memories of sin.

This dreadful travesty and amalgam of Shelley, Swinburne, the Bible, Milton, and whatnot, is typical of Wilde’s verse, and opened him to many attacks which became particularly nasty in America during his notorious . . .

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